Dream Pairing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Guess Who plays out the shock of a beautiful black daughter (Zoe Saldana) introducing her white fiance (Ashton Kutcher) to her formidable parents (Bernie Mac and Judith Scott) with grace and humanity, whether addressing the racial content or transcending it. Oh, it's full of stunned looks and dueling stereotypes, and the most daring, hilarious scene comes when Mac demands that Kutcher repeat some black jokes that the boy has heard around his family's dinner table.

But the movie's sweetness, wit and charm go beyond its can't-we-all-just-get-along premise. The director, Kevin Rodney Sullivan (Barbershop 2), has a rapport with actors that's as warm and sure as any filmmaker's today. He uses Kutcher's gangly goofiness to uproarious and endearing effect.

This successful but eccentric young stockbroker would be an outsider just about anywhere off Wall Street, but especially in Mac's comfy home in the New Jersey suburbs, where he lives with a gorgeous stand-up wife (Scott) and has raised two feisty daughters.

In the stolid old Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), this movie's loose inspiration, Sidney Poitier mused that in his lifetime he and his white wife-to-be (Katharine Houghton, Katharine Hepburn's real-life niece) might see their son become secretary of state.

Good call! In Guess Who, Mac presumes that his prize daughter will bring home Colin Powell. When Mac runs a colorblind background check before meeting him, the main thing Kutcher has going for him is his status as an up-and-coming finance whiz. But when the curtain rises Kutcher quits his job (for a withheld reason that proves crucial at the climax) and hides the information even from Saldana, though it's sure to come back to haunt him.

With his lanky silliness and earnestness, Kutcher is like Jack and the Beanstalk rolled into one. And Mac is an old-school giant, with fire in his eyes. The gap between him and Kutcher is more generational than racial. When Mac's fierce orbs lock with Kutcher's nervous, hooded ones, they trigger a nuclear fusion that threatens to explode the nuclear family.

As in the underrated Mr. 3000, Mac proves that he's a born movie star. He's all the more potent on screen for reining in the power that makes him a natural force on sitcoms or in concert. Here it doesn't take more than a squint for Mac to convey that he can't see the appeal of Kutcher's lollygagging boy-man, a non-athlete with a polite yet hesitant manner.

Mac inadvertently spies on Kutcher keeping Saldana amused with pranks that to him seem kinky - like trying on sexy scarlet lingerie. Any hope of bonding evaporates. And Kutcher is so intent on impressing his prospective father-in-law that he tries to fake a past experience with NASCAR, assuming, wrongly, that no wealthy black man follows that sport. (Mac does.)

The smartest part of this canny, caring movie is that it deploys racial tensions to revive the young-love and in-law troubles that used to keep romantic comedies in clover. Situations from decades-old farces become juicy once again - like the fiance sleeping in the basement, where his future father-in-law can keep watch on him, lying right next to him. Or the fiancee taking her man to the spot where she had her first kiss with someone else. Guess Who doesn't deny the racial gap. But racial friction becomes symbolic of something more immediate for lovers and for parents, too: obstacles to trust that marriages must overcome for their ties of affection to bind.

Sullivan and his craftsmen make it all persuasive and inviting. Watch the 38-year-old Guess Who's Coming to Dinner today and it's a moldy talkfest: a soap opera that would never have become a success or a legend without its shrewd setup and its stars (not just Poitier as the suitor, but Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the parents). Tracy plays a crusading liberal San Francisco newspaper publisher who still gets knocked for a loop by his daughter's choice of "a colored man"; only Tracy thinking that Poitier loves his daughter as much as Tracy loves Hepburn steers him straight. The most dated confrontation comes between Poitier and his own father: Poitier says his old man thinks of himself as a colored man, while Poitier just thinks of himself as a man.

Guess Who is savvier racially, more alive emotionally, and, what's more, a real movie. The characters don't merely talk about love conquering all: They demonstrate it. They even find fresh ways to trip through slapstick-tinged dance scenes, especially when Kutcher teaches Mac the tango. When they do orate about amour, they do it with a casual, offhand eloquence - there's no undue slick to their "you-complete-me" talk.

Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and editor Paul Seydor help Sullivan catch the actors at their most unbuttoned and spontaneous. Scott and Mac ignite the sexuality that fuels the couple's 25 years of devotion, and Saldana makes Kutcher more appealing because we grow to see him through her loving eyes. Kutcher pulls off bouts of insecurity and neediness that suggest his potential far more than his deftness with a wisecrack. It's good for a comic actor to be pitiless with himself. Kutcher shows no mercy.

Sullivan has the sensitivity to keep his characters as likable as they are foolish. He gives Mac's family a true center of gravity. When Saldana says that Mac's approval won't change the world, but would change her world, her desire stings and reforms her dad. It also touches us. More than the set-up or the script, what makes Guess Who so distinctive is the director's aura of good feeling. It surrounds the movie like a rainbow-colored wedding tent.

Guess Who

Starring Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac

Directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan

Released by Sony

Rated PG-13

Time 103 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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